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Music Review: Hotel Sessions by Olivia Newton-John

hotel+sessionsAn extended play recording of seven unreleased demo tracks by legendary artist Olivia Newton-John is on sale (for a steep price, too, at $20) exclusively at Olivia’s new residency venue in Las Vegas, The Flamingo. The set goes on sale soon on her Web site and iTunes.

The new songs – titled Hotel Sessions because the music was recorded between 2002 and 2011 at various hotels in Olivia’s hometown, Melbourne, Australia – come in conjunction with her new Las Vegas show “Summer Nights” opening this week (read my exclusive review here).

Produced by Olivia’s nephew, Brett Goldsmith (except where otherwise noted), who wrote or co-wrote three of the songs and whose iPhone photos provide CD cover art, Hotel Sessions is a fresh, mature and surprisingly polished series of techno-pop demo cuts. The opening song, “Ordinary Life”, is a simple guitar looping, driving anthem. The buoyant “Best of My Love” is an instantly enjoyable ode to someone who is hard to love and there’s a dance remix included as a bonus. “End in Peace”, co-written by Olivia Newton-John, is a ghostly prayer for better days which faintly recalls “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” in melody and vocals, “Bow River” rocks and pops with ONJ torching it against backup vocals, piano and synthesizer and Olivia’s cover version of Mister Mister’s 1980s’ hit “Broken Wings” is, in Olivia’s care, less strained and slightly faster. I never liked the original much and I like her rendition here fine but the dance remix of the cover, which with piano added and ONJ high notes and bass enhanced is more urgent, is even better.

The independent ONJ Productions EP, which is being released after the death of Olivia’s sister, is thoughtfully “Dedicated to our sister & mother Rona Newton-John”.

Review: Summer Nights by Olivia Newton-John at The Flamingo Las Vegas

ONJSNFLVOlivia Newton-John’s first Las Vegas residency, inside the Donny & Marie Showroom at Caesar Entertainment’s Flamingo Hotel and Casino, is an intimate, poignant show she calls “Summer Nights”. The 20-plus song production premiered this week. I’ve met and written about Olivia over the years at various stages of her extraordinary career and, in Vegas for a conference, I wanted to see her new show before the grand opening.

The iconic star emerged looking and sounding fabulous. Stepping out in black and white, framed by the venue’s familiar pink, her understated stage presence is as relaxed, seasoned and elegant as the themes of her earliest hit records. After decades of recording, filming and touring, Olivia is a masterful artist, who, like Doris Day, never really gets the serious credit she deserves. With a refreshing emphasis on music, Olivia sang her most popular and audience-friendly songs and a few cover tunes. Her 45-date engagement runs through August.

In perfect tune on every song from “Physical” to “Have You Never Been Mellow”, Olivia clearly takes care of herself. Her voice, which still expresses her unique blend of struggle, strength and sweetness, achieves clarity in every song and clarity defines her superior vocal style. She moves with ease in simple, playful choreography that wisely lets the spotlight stay centered on the 65-year-old pop star. The skilled eight-piece band and spot-on backup singers play against a black and white stage design, which complements ONJ’s pronounced style. She kept banter light and humorous.

Xanadu soundtrack songs include the hits “Magic” and “Suddenly” and the show features luminous images from the 1980 picture, from movie publicity stills to clips of her film character, Kira, dancing with co-star Gene Kelly. “Summer Nights” includes themed segments for Grease (1978) songs (“We Go Together”, “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee (reprise)”, “Hopelessly Devoted to You”, “Summer Nights” and “You’re the One That I Want”) and a medley of Olivia’s early country recordings and hits, including “Country Roads”, “If You Love Me Let Me Know”, “Please Mr. Please” and “Let Me Be There”. The show’s title number, the boy-girl, tell-me-more ensemble duet from Grease, is a crowd pleaser. When the audience added its own pathetic attempt at the heavy sigh that was originally John Travolta‘s oh at the climax of the story in song, Olivia hilariously broke character and turned to the audience in mock horror, a brief moment of self-awareness which made the finale all the more satisfying for everyone in the room. “Summer Nights” employs a jovial, even raucous, sense of life. It’s hard not to have a blast when she’s singing about “good, Kentucky whiskey”, getting animal and places where nobody dared to go.

Though this longtime fan missed hearing Olivia perform songs from Two of a Kind, Back with a Heart, Soul Kiss, Grace and Gratitude and The Rumour, the show is a musical journey from “I Honestly Love You” (1974) to ONJ’s Brazilian-influenced Gaia anthem “Not Gonna Give Into It” (1994) and more, so it is understandable why certain songs didn’t make the final set list. Whatever one’s favorite moment or song from the remarkable career of Olivia Newton-John, some of the most powerful performances in “Summer Nights” are her covers of “Cry Me a River”, “Over the Rainbow” and the stirring rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s layered “Send in the Clowns” from the 1973 musical A Little Night Music. The mystery of what moves us in music is of course enormously complicated, so each member of the audience will be touched in some unique way by Olivia’s incredible range in theme, technique and life experience. But you will never think of Olivia as a mere pleasant voice or source for fun pop diversion from the past again. Here, she delivers a rewarding sample of why she is the best.

The impeccable performance – expect stark staging, not glitz ala Cher or Celine Dion – stems from ONJ’s status as a true pop music diva who has earned every dollar; she was an opening act for Charlie Rich at the Las Vegas Hilton in the summer of 1974, worked with Don Rickles, Eddie Rabbit and other Vegas acts, so Olivia knows the boulevard’s demands and strikes the proper tone for a show that combines glamor and ability. Her 40th year return to performing in Las Vegas, this time in headline residency, is a triumph.

The fact that Olivia recently lost her sister, Rona, to cancer, makes the charitable part of this production especially meaningful. In 1992, Olivia was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her personal thriving led her to create a partnership with the Austin Health and the creation of the Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Centre (ONJCWC) in her hometown of Melbourne, Australia. Olivia donates a portion of the $68-$249 ticket price to the ONJCWC, which provides comprehensive services for cancer treatment, education, training and research as well as a dedicated wellness center.

Who:: Olivia Newton-John

What: Summer Nights

Where: The Flamingo Las Vegas

When: April through August

How Much: $68 to $249

New Music Interview: Henry Jackman

HJCATWSRead the new interview I recently conducted with Captain America: The Winter Soldier composer Henry Jackman on The New Romanticist. In this exclusive interview about America’s top movie, a Marvel Studios picture which exceeded expectations to earn $96 million in the opening weekend, Jackman talks about the meaning of music for film, whether he sees man as heroic and whom between Captain America and Captain Phillips, another title character from the last film he scored, he would prefer to have as a dinner guest.

This is one of my most free-wheeling interviews – we went into overtime – and, besides The King’s Speech composer Alexandre Desplat and Grammy-winning songwriter Melissa Manchester, who co-wrote a song for The Weinstein Company’s Dirty Girl with Mary Steenburgen, it offers a closer examination of the creative process of telling stories through motion pictures. I hope readers enjoy the new interview as much as I did.

Speaking of music, I am still enjoying what I listen to on CD and iTunes, from James Blunt, Stevie Nicks and Elton John to Avicii, and newly remastered or released recordings by the great conductor Arturo Toscanini. I am also working on an exclusive new series of interviews with one of my favorite artists, Melissa Manchester, who is making a new, crowdfunded album (her 20th!) of the great American songbook with new tunes she wrote and appearances by classic jazz and pop artists. I’ve been privileged to attend recording sessions for the new work and I am excited. This week, I am planning to attend a preview of a new, live show, Summer Nights, by another favorite artist, Olivia Newton-John, at her residency at the Donny and Marie Showroom in the Flamingo Las Vegas. Olivia also has a new record, which I plan to review. New music from legendary artists and for enjoyable movies (and my writing teacher Leonard Peikoff just announced an amateur jazz performance at OCON in Las Vegas this summer) should make for more good tunes throughout the year.

Before the Oscars

Before the Oscars, I attended a thoughtful discussion of what it means to match music to motion pictures, courtesy of composer Alexandre Desplat, who was gracious enough to take to the piano and perform a few selections from his astonishing career in scoring movies at a Weinstein Company event at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

Photo by Scott Holleran. Copyright 2014 Scott Holleran. May not be used without permission.

Alexandre Desplat plays Philomena score at the Polo Lounge, Beverly Hills Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif. Photo © Copyright 2014 Scott Holleran. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without the permission of Scott Holleran.

Desplat, whom I interviewed about his work and score during release of The King’s Speech, is nominated for tonight’s 2013 Academy Awards for his Philomena score which he explored and sampled in a room near the Polo Lounge. It was standing room only as the Frenchman talked about his distinguished career, including music for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the role of melody and why he likes to integrate melancholy into each of his themes for film. He confirmed that his next project is scoring a remake of Godzilla. But Philomena was the main topic, with Desplat explaining how he brought the fairgrounds theme from the title character’s early indiscretion full circle into the rest of her lifelong journey and the old-age search to locate the child who was taken away. As always, he was honest, frank and tactful about Hollywood’s impossible process for making movies punctuated by proper music.

This is Hollywood’s big night and what a good year 2013 was in pictures. Nebraska gave actor Bruce Dern attention he deserves, though not for that blank slate. Frozen and Gravity made huge box office while further dumbing down the audience. Her offered the opposite: a thoughtful movie which is too abstract. Other good films include the historical Emperor, Tina Fey’s stimulating Admission, the old-fashioned, period piece 42, Brad Pitt’s reinvigorated World War Z, Man of Steel, Last Vegas, Catching Fire, Prisoners and Oz the Great and Powerful while The Great Gatsby, Lovelace and The Incredible Burt Wonderstone were less than great and incredible. Though I have not seen every major movie from last year, and with the brilliantly constructed Philomena in top contention, by my estimate, 2013′s best films are: 3. Dallas Buyers Club 2. Mud 1. 12 Years a Slave.

Dallas Buyers Club is a richly textured dramatization of one Texan versus the government in a dramatic showdown with life itself at stake in every moment. Mud is about what makes men from boys. 12 Years a Slave is Hollywood’s first serious film about American slavery taken in the measure of one man who is born free. It deserves the highest praise. Another picture about one individual’s odyssey into a dark, strange world will be honored tonight during a reunion of Judy Garland’s children including Liza Minnelli: The Wizard of Oz, which celebrates its 75th year. With Ellen DeGeneres hosting again, I do hope tonight’s Oscars do not repeat past affairs and instead toast with glamor to the best movies and moviemaking.

 

 

Music Review: ‘Moon Landing’ by James Blunt

220px-Moon_Landing_James_BluntJames Blunt’s well crafted new pop rock album is his best work yet.

Moon Landing is in turns haunting, soulful and refreshingly romantic and optimistic. It’s the perfect new year’s pop album, though it was released last fall. With somber ballads, infectious pop and lyricism loaded with piano-laden, guitar-licking hooks, Blunt follows up the previous album, Some Kind of Trouble, with more of the same thoughtful, appealing and meaningful music. Listen for his always clear and coherent vocals on each of the 10 neatly composed songs. If you think today’s music is whiny, noisy and foggy, his fourth studio album will satisfy.

Every tune is excellent and I can’t really pick any standouts or turkeys. Some songs are slow. Some songs are fast. All of them are original to his style – if you don’t care for his falsetto voice, don’t go near the record – which is sincere, sentimental and sometimes cliched. What distinguishes Moon Landing from his Back to Bedlam, All the Lost Souls and Some Kind of Trouble is an artistic progression toward a higher, grander status as a pop star, delivering more focussed upbeat rock tunes that demonstrate a maturity worthy of a 1970s-era Elton John, especially on “Bones” and the sweet “Heart to Heart”.

I get the impression that combat veteran Blunt, who was famously ridiculed and vilified by cynics such as the Saturday Night Live cast when he broke out and profited from his hugely popular early hits (“You’re Beautiful”), doesn’t give a damn what others think. As he writes on the lilting “Postcards”:

I’m sending postcards from my heart,
With love for a postmark and then,
You’ll know that you make me,
Feel like we’ve been caught.
Like kids in the school-yard again.
And I can’t keep it to myself.
Can’t spell it any better,
L-O-V-E forever.
I hope you know that I’m,
Sending a postcard,
I don’t care who sees what I’ve said.
Or if the whole world knows what’s in my head.

Here again he displays romanticism with pride and the songs are more insistent, finished and memorable. Few artists weave solitude and loneliness into penetrating melodies as well as James Blunt, who co-wrote every tune. Heartache is threaded throughout the recording, even when he’s singing about falling or being in love, such as on “Bonfire Love”. It’s a lovely song which, like much of Moon Landing, is arranged, polished and sugared to confection. I’m well aware that this is a drawback to many if not most modern listeners, who prefer pain, torture and suffering in pop idols (Adele’s appeal comes to mind), not that there’s an absence of that on this or Blunt’s previous work. But it’s his sincerity, his seriousness, that the detractors hate about James Blunt. On Moon Landing, he counters with nothing but sobriety, love and light. Don’t miss listening to the tragic “Miss America”, which is Blunt’s tribute to Whitney Houston, his biting “Always Hate Me” and “Satellites”, insightful commentary on how misuse of technology distorts intimacy. “Face the Sun” is also a special song unto itself.